January 1, 2014 9:42:35 PM
STARKVILLE -- It's difficult to declare the conference opener a "statement game."
But in many ways the Mississippi State women's basketball team will face that magnitude of a matchup at 6 tonight when it takes on Florida in the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams at the O'Connell Center in Gainesville, Fla. WNMQ-FM (103.1) will broadcast the game live. It also will be available to HailStateTV subscribers.
MSU (13-1) is coming off a 98-58 victory against Mississippi Valley State on Monday. The victory was the sixth in a row for the Bulldogs and helped them secure the best start in program history. It also allowed MSU to match its win total from a year ago, when it went 13-17 (5-11 in the SEC) in coach Vic Schaefer's first season with the program.
Schaefer believed MSU had the potential to accomplish a lot more this season. Buoyed by a recruiting class that was ranked 35th in the nation, Schaefer knew the Bulldogs had improved their depth and had learned valuable lessons that could help the program take the next step.
Part of that progression involves an accountability that demands more from players even after a 40-point victory. The fact that MVSU (1-10) beat MSU in transition, the Bulldogs lost 3-point shooters when they were on defense, MSU took too long getting into its sets on offense, and the Bulldogs didn't play with the energy Schaefer wants on their press were troubling for a head coach who has been a part of Final Four and national championship teams at Arkansas and Texas A&M.
"I come out of practice (Sunday) I have all the confidence in the world," Schaefer said. "I have to go through the first half (against Mississippi Valley State) and we have a good crowd (a season-best ) and we are stinkin' it up.
"Do I think we are ready (for the start of SEC play)? No. We're not right now, but thank goodness we have two days to get ready before we play (today)."
It remains to be seen how well MSU corrected areas of concern from the first 20 minutes against MVSU the past two days. But part of MSU's ability to take the next step involves winning a game like this one, which is a toss-up game based on the preseason conference polls. In the media and coaches polls, Florida and MSU were picked 10th and 11th and were part of a group that includes Georgia, Auburn, Missouri, Florida, MSU, and Arkansas that could finish in any number of ways after 16 league games.
Judging from Schaefer's comments after Monday night's game, MSU had plenty of work to do to prepare for a Florida team that enters tonight's game on a six-game winning streak. The Gators (10-3) are averaging 87.5 points in that stretch.
"We are fixin' to see if it is disinterested because of who we are playing, and now we are getting to play the big girls," Schaefer said.
Schaefer used the word "disinterested" to describe how he felt MSU's Martha Alwal played in the first half against MVSU. The 6-foot-4 junior center had 11 points in 15 first-half minutes against MVSU, but Schaefer wanted more from a player who was a second-team All-SEC pick in the preseason. Although Alwal finished with a game-high 22 points, Schaefer pointed out Alwal had only four rebounds (one on the defensive end) and was 4 of 8 from the free throw line.
While Schaefer's comments might have appeared to be nit-picking after such a huge victory, he made it clear when he arrived at MSU he was going to demand more from the players and to hold them to a higher standard. With games against Florida, Auburn, and Arkansas to open the season, Schaefer hopes his players realize first halves like the one they delivered against MVSU won't cut it in the SEC.
"We'll see if the interest increases. I call it disinterested, especially with her (Alwal). She is disinterested and doesn't respect the opponent and then at halftime she realizes it is 40-34 and they are pushing me all around and I am 3 of 6 from the free throw line, I guess I better try to play a little better.
"To me, that is a sign of disinterest, not being ready to play, not being a pro. We talk to them all of the time, 'You have to be a pro. You have to earn your check, every day.' This is what you do. This is who we are. People spend a lot of money on women's basketball at Mississippi State. It is important here. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't, so to take that mind-set and impart that to your players is part of the maturation process, part of growing up, part of developing a program. I just have some young people that they have never been a part of that. If they have been on that, they weren't playing. Now they are playing and it is important they play well every night. We have a couple of kids if they don't play well, we're not going to win. That is no different than any team in the country."
Kendra Grant, who had 16 points against MVSU, feels MSU is ready for the start of SEC play because of the way it has been preparing. She said things remain to be corrected after the first half Monday, but she said a second half in which MSU was more active on defense and had significantly more energy was more like the team has to play for 40 minutes every game.
"Coach was talking about our heart," Grant said. "He was saying it seemed like we didn't play with heart. When you talk about a person's heart, that hits home for the. We all took it to heart and played a lot harder than we did in the first half."
Alwal said MSU had to avoid being "chill" to start games because it won't get a reprieve for a slow start from anyone in the SEC.
"I think if we play like we did in the second half we will be ready," Alwal said. "All of the time (to start the game) we are calm and we don't punch the other team, like Schaefer says. Our second half, we need to be yelled at and we need to stop being like that and need to put both halves together."
Schaefer hopes that happens tonight against an opponent that has won the last seven meetings in the series. SEC Player of the Week Jaterra Bonds, a senior guard who is sixth in the league in scoring (16.7 points per game) leads Florida, which has only nine healthy players on its roster. Five Gators are scoring in double figures.
"I don't think they get it right now," Schaefer said. "I haven't seen a consistency of the lights are on, let's go play, nobody is going to steal my joy. (Freshman) Dominique (Dillingham) has that approach. She comes ready to play every night. It doesn't matter who we are playing. Somebody from the conference office was here tonight and they bragged on her. That is that kid. It is our job to go recruit more kids like her that have that passion that it doesn't matter who is out there, I am going to go embarrass them, I am going to go dominate. Whoever I am playing against, too bad for you. That is the mentality you have to have. When you have an immature team like we do, inexperienced, young, that is hard to develop.
"I look out there in the first three minutes, I have a kid laughing, giggling, having a big time on the free throw line and we're getting our butt handed to us and it is 8-8. I just have higher expectations.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.